The art studio of alumnus and adjunct professor Mike Geno, 45, proudly displays cheese paintings and bacon drawings. Cheese paintings have been his specialty since his first encounter with fellow cheese enthusiasts.
“Bread has been very good, too,” said Geno, who graduated in 1995 from the Tyler School of Art. “I need to make more time for it.”
Geno and cheese blogger Tenaya Darlington, 43, better known as Madame Fromage, met at a party in 2010. She introduced Geno to more varieties of cheese to paint after he spent a $25 gift certificate at Di Bruno Bros. on a wedge that would become his new muse.
“I felt like I had to paint that cheese,” Geno said. “It was so beautiful. I hadn’t expected that. I painted it that day.”
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Geno pursued graduate school in the Midwest. He moved to Carbondale, Illinois, to obtain a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University. He moved back to Philadelphia in 2001.
Geno’s cheese art has been featured in the New York Times, Cheese Connoisseur Magazine and various gallery shows.
“I was really turned off of the idea of working on over-serious things,” Geno said. “Everyone was making things that were really showing off their intellect, or how serious their art was. It felt pretentious to me.”
Throughout graduate school, Geno began working on still life paintings of toys—not serious things, Geno said, but he painted them “very seriously, like it was the most important rubber ducky in the world.”
“The faculty were sometimes agitated by how well it was painted, but how unimportant the subject was to them,” Geno said.
For his final thesis, Geno explored painting something other than toys.
“I joked that I was really hungry and really wished that I had the money to get a big juicy steak and paint it like one of these rubber duckies,” Geno said. “I did it as a joke, and it turned out to be a really good experience because I was working as a meat cutter before grad school and I understood the subject—the subtleties of the color and the texture of raw meat. My paint became an extension of that.”
Darlington, a Wisconsin native, led Geno to be inspired by cheese’s complexities. She—quite literally—”wrote the book ” on cheese while collaborating with gourmet food retailer Di Bruno Bros. “Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese” was published in 2013.
“I started checking out cheese shops out of homesickness,” Darlington said. “I called [the blog] ‘Madame Fromage’ because I thought the cheese board itself was very theatrical.”
Darlington left her job as writer and editor for Isthmus Newspaper in 2005 to teach writing at St. Joseph’s University. There are about 3,000 readers on her blog each month, she said.
“Cheese is going through a boom time like craft beer and distilled spirits,” Darlington said. “I think that there’s a whole generation of folks who grew up in the suburbs, always eating a lot of frozen foods and packaged foods. When they encounter these flavors, like with what you get with charcuterie or handcrafted cheese, it’s like they have an awakening.”
Darlington is currently working on a cocktail book and will head across the Atlantic to England in search of cheddar and anything else she might find in a cave or pasture.
“I believe in taking big risks,” Darlington said.
“I’ve gotten to know so many people in the cheese world now,” Geno said. “It’s like a weird fraternity. I never had a fraternity. They’re much warmer than the art world.”
Madeline Presland can be reached at email@example.com.